2021 NFL Breakout Players: NFC Edition

As we begin to ramp up to the 2021 NFL and college football season, we’re taking a look at breakout player predictions for every team. The NFC features the defending Super Bowl champions in Tampa plus a host of contenders. Could one of these breakout players put them team over the Buccaneers?

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NFC East

Dallas Cowboys—LB Micah Parsons

Can rookies qualify as breakout players? We think so, and Cowboys’ linebacker Micah Parsons has a tall task ahead of him as he (and others) look to revive a Dallas defense that was downright bad in 2020. The Dan Quinn defense should allow for Parsons to standout at middle linebacker where his rare athleticism will be on display immediately. 

New York Giants—S Xavier McKinney

If you’re looking for an NFC safety who can take a huge next step in 2021, look no further than New York Giants’ Xavier McKinney. An early second-rounder in the 2020 draft, McKinney missed a good part of the year with a fractured foot but once activated showed his ability in coverage. Now fully healthy with an offseason to learn, McKinney should be a standout.

Philadelphia Eagles—QB Jalen Hurts

Jalen Hurts will be given every opportunity to become the long-term answer at quarterback for the Philadelphia Eagles; we believe he’ll make the most of it. Hurts, who showed great promise replacing Carson Wentz last year, has the athleticism and poise needed to run the show as a versatile threat in the offense. He’ll also have a heck of a coach in Nick Siriani working with him daily. 

Washington Football Team—CB William Jackson III

An underrated presence in Cincinnati, William Jackson III now finds himself playing cornerback behind arguably the best front seven in all of football. That’ll make the job a little easier for one of football’s best kept secrets. And while Jackson is considered a veteran at this point, his 2021 campaign can put his name on the national stage.

NFC North

Chicago Bears—CB Jaylon Johnson

The spotlight is on Jaylon Johnson in 2021 as he’ll be asked to step up as the Bears’ top cornerback with Kendall Fuller now a Denver Bronco. No pressure. Johnson, who famously ran at the 2020 NFL Combine with a torn labrum, has the toughness and mentality to hold his own on the outside against all the NFC North has to offer at wide receiver. Look for a few early bumps, which are expected, but don’t be shocked when Johnson ends the year as one of the best young corners in the NFC.

Detroit Lions—TE TJ Hockenson

Maybe last year counts as T.J. Hockenson’s breakout year, but it feels like that got lost in the ridiculous numbers Travis Kelce put up and with Darren Waller really breaking out as a national star. This season is Hockenson’s, though. Even with the Lions downgrading from Matthew Stafford to Jared Goff, the loss of the team’s top three receivers from 2020 means Hockenson is the best option left in the passing game. The top of the list at tight end goes Kelce, Kittle and Waller in some order. Hockenson is making a claim for the next stop.

Green Bay Packers—S Darnell Savage

One of my biggest breakout bets for 2021 is Packers’ safety Darnell Savage. We saw in 2020 the breakout potential of Savage and in his third NFL season it wouldn’t be a surprise to see one of the league’s most athletic and rangy centerfielders lead all defenders in interceptions. Savage has a top-tier corner (Jaire Alexander) flanking him and a good pass-rush in front of him. Given his speed and playmaking instincts, that’s a recipe for success.

Minnesota Vikings—TE Irv Smith, Jr.

Kyle Rudolph is out and in comes a highly talented tight end in Irv Smith, Jr. and the feeling around the league is that he’s ready to breakout with more touches and targets. Smith, who has flashed his potential both in the NFL and in college, is primed to become one of Kirk Cousins’ favorite targets this season. 

NFC South

Atlanta Falcons—WR Calvin Ridley

Julio Jones is gone and someone will be tasked with taking his targets. Of course rookie tight end Kyle Pitts will figure into that equation, but rookie tight ends aren’t known for big production. Ridley will be the Falcons’ No. 1 receiving option—and with Matt Ryan still at quarterback, Ridley is primed for big time statistical production.

Carolina Panthers—EDGE Brian Burns

With 16.5 sacks in his two NFL seasons, Brian Burns is already emerging as one of the league’s better pass-rushers. With his second season under new head coach Matt Rhule’s system, expect 2021 to be a year in which Burns gets close to his career sack number in just 17 seasons. His combination of length, speed and instincts are what made Burns a top draft choice. Putting all that together with better strength and better tools as a pass-rusher makes Burns a breakout candidate.

New Orleans Saints—TE Adam Trautman

The New Orleans Saints were a very difficult team to choose for because so much is unknown about how the offense will look in a post-Drew Brees world. One thing we’re banking on is tight end Adam Trautman becoming a bigger part of the passing game in his second season. Michael Thomas can’t shoulder the load alone here, and with either Jameis Winston or Taysom Hill throwing the rock we expect the tight end to get a lot more looks.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers — LB Devin White

We saw Devin White breakout on the national stage during Super Bowl 54. Now he’ll do that for a full regular season as the former No. 5 overall pick becomes one of the NFL’s best middle linebackers. White’s range, awareness and athleticism are all top-tier traits. Now he’ll put together the production and impact performances in his sophomore season to hear his name mentioned among the league’s best.

NFC West

Arizona Cardinals—LB Isaiah Simmons

The 2020 season was a disappointment for rookie Isaiah Simmons given the hype surrounding his name coming out of Clemson. But Simmons was thrust into a tough role learning a new position while trying to acclimate to the NFL without the benefit of a preseason. Now, with more time to learn, look for the athletic marvel to breakout as a playmaking defender in the Arizona defense.

Los Angeles Rams—CB Darious Williams

Smart fans know that Darious Williams emerged as a legitimate coverage weapon in the 2020 season. Now, with fewer teams throwing at Jalen Ramsey, look for Williams to post the numbers that will get his name on the national radar. As one of my favorite cornerbacks to watch on a weekly basis, Williams has all the tools to become a Pro Bowler in 2021.

San Francisco 49ers—WR Brandon Aiyuk

In his rookie season, Brandon Aiyuk showed the yards-after-catch playmaking ability to be a home run threat no matter who is throwing him the football. And in San Francisco, it could be Trey Lance or Jimmy Garoppolo getting him the ball. With George Kittle and Deebo Samuel factoring into the 49ers’ passing game in big ways, Aiyuk might not post huge numbers, but his impact has the potential to be enormous in 2021.

Seattle Seahawks—S Quandre Diggs

Quandre Diggs is the NFL’s best kept secret in the secondary. A playmaker at free safety, Diggs’ versatility is the key to his success. He can line up all over the defensive backfield and has shown ball skills (five interceptions last year), toughness, and leadership. As the Seahawks look to make another deep playoff run, Diggs is a huge part of the defensive strategy.